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New York Times, Post Week-6 (2014): Big D in Detroit

This week at the New York Times, I looked at the dominant Detroit defense.

It is a new football era in Detroit. For five years, the Lions were known as a talented but undisciplined squad that failed to reach its potential under Jim Schwartz. The defense, in particular, was high on names but low on production. And while the offense had its moments, it was asked to do too much: In five years Detroit won only two games when it failed to score 20 points, the second fewest in the N.F.L. over that span behind San Diego.

But this year the new-look Lions have already won a pair of low-scoring affairs against division rivals. In Week 3, Detroit held the Packers to 7 points, the fewest in any game that Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers started and finished. The Lions also held Green Bay to 223 yards, the fewest in any game with Rodgers since 2008. On Sunday, Detroit’s defense was outstanding: It recorded eight sacks and three interceptions against Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and forced five three-and-outs with a sixth drive ending in a four-and-out.

You can read the full article here.

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Predictions in Review: NFC North

During the 2013 offseason, I wrote 32 articles under the RPO 2013 tag. In my Predictions in Review series, I review those preview articles with the benefit of hindsight. Previously, I reviewed the AFC West, the NFC West, the AFC South, the NFC South, and the AFC North. Today, the NFC North.

The Detroit Lions will win more games in 2013, June 21, 2013

In 2012, Detroit finished 4-12, but they seemed like an obvious pick to have a rebound season. The Lions went 3-9 in games decided by 8 or fewer points that year, which was the worst mark in the league. Since such a poor record is usually a sign of bad luck rather than bad skill, Detroit wouldn’t need to do much to improve on their 4-win season. The Lions had 6.4 Pythagorean wins, and no team fell as far short of their Pythagorean record in 2012 as Detroit. There was one other reason I highlighted as to why Detroit would win more games in 2013: the Lions recovered only 33% of all fumbles that occurred in Detroit games. As a result, the team recovered 7.6 fewer fumbles than expected.

Of course, none of this was a surprise: Vegas pegged Detroit as an average team entering the season. And even though the Lions did finish 7-9, a three-win improvement wasn’t enough to save Jim Schwartz’ job. After a 3-9 record the year before, the 2013 Lions went 4-6 in games decided by 8 or fewer points, which included losses in the team’s final three games.  Detroit did improve when it came to fumble recoveries, but only slightly: the Lions recovered 42.6% of all fumbles in their games in 2013, which was 3.6 recoveries fewer than expected.

What can we learn: When it comes to records in close games and fumble recovery rates, we should expect regression to the mean.  Last year, the Colts (6-1) and Jets (5-1) had the best records in close games; Andrew Luck has been doing this for two years now, but no such benefit of the doubt should be given to the Jets. Meanwhile, Houston (2-9) and Washington (2-7) had the worst records in close games. All else being equal, we would expect both of those teams to improve on their wins total in 2014 (for the 2-14 Texans, it will take some work not to win more games in 2014; and, of course, such rebound seasons are already baked into the Vegas lines).

As far as fumble recovery rates, well, that’s one area where the Jets are hoping for some regression to the mean.

The 2012 Chicago Bears had the Least Strange Season Ever, August 2, 2013

Here’s what I wrote about the 2012 Bears:

The 2012 Bears played two terrible teams, the Titans and the Jaguars. Those were the two biggest blowouts of the season for Chicago. The Bears had five games against really good teams (Seattle, San Francisco, Houston, and the Packers twice): those were the five biggest losses of the season. Chicago had one other loss, which came on the road against the next best team the Bears played, Minnesota.

But the Bears didn’t just have a predictable season. That -0.89 correlation coefficient [between Chicago's opponent's rating and location-adjusted margin of victory] is the lowest for any 16-game season in NFL history. In other words, Chicago just had the least strange season of the modern era.

This post was not about predicting Chicago’s 2013 season but analyzing a quirky fact I discovered. The Bears struggled against the best teams in 2012, and that cost Lovie Smith his job. In 2013, Chicago’s season was much more normal; in fact, the Bears had a slightly “stranger” season than the average team.

The Bears did manage to defeat the Bengals and Packers (without Aaron Rodgers), but Chicago still finished below .500 against playoff teams thanks to losses to New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Green Bay (with Aaron Rodgers). After a 2-6 performance against playoff teams in 2012, I suppose a 2-3 record is an improvement. But the irony is that the reason Chicago’s season was less normal in 2013 wasn’t due to better play against the best teams, but because Chicago lost to Minnesota and Washington. In the first year post-Lovie, the Bears missed the playoffs because they lost to two of the worst teams in the league, causing them to miss out on the division title by one half-game. Here’s one stat I bet Lovie Smith knows: from 2005 to 2012, Chicago went 30-0 against teams that finished the season with fewer than six wins. As for which teams had the strangest and least strangest seasons in 2013? Check back tomorrow.

Can Adrian Peterson break Emmitt Smith’s rushing record?, August 3, 2013

What a difference a year makes. Eight months ago, the debate regarding whether Adrian Peterson could break Smith’s record was a legitimate talking point. After a “down” season with 1,266 yards in 14 games, nobody is asking that question anymore. Of course, Peterson never had much of a chance of breaking the record anyway, which was the point of my post. Not only had Smith outgained him Peterson through each of their first six seasons, and not only did Smith enter the league a year earlier than Peterson, but Emmitt Smith was also the leader in career rushing yards after a player’s first six seasons.

Peterson just turned 29 years old. He ranks sixth in career rushing yards through age 28, but Smith has a 1,119 yard advantage when it comes to rushing yards through age 28. Barry Sanders has them both beat, of course, but he retired after his age 30 season. The problem for Peterson? He needs to run for 8,241 yards during his age 29+ seasons to break Smith’s record. The career leader in yards after turning 29 is Smith with 7,121 yards.

What can we learn: Unless Peterson finds the fountain of youth, Smith’s record won’t be challenged for a long, long time.

Witnesses to Greatness: Aaron Rodgers Edition, August 30, 2013

In late August, I wondered if we had taken Rodgers’ dominance for granted. After all, he had a career passer rating of 104.9, the best ever. Then in 2013, he produced a passer rating of … 104.9, the fifth best mark among qualifying passers.

Passer rating stinks, as we all know, but Rodgers is dominant in nearly every metric. If we break passer rating down into its four parts we see:

  • Entering 2013, Rodgers was the career leader in completion percentage. Drew Brees now holds a 0.1% edge over Rodgers in this category. Rodgers completed 66.6% of his passes last year, the 5th best mark of 2013.
  • Rodgers was the career leader in interception rate entering 2013, and still holds that crown. Believe it or not, his 2.1% interception rate last year ranked only 12th.
  • With a 5.9% touchdown rate in 2013 (5th best), he remains the active leader in touchdown percentage. Everyone ahead of him on the career list began their career before 1960.
  • Rodgers was the active leader in yards/attempt prior to 2013, and then he had another dominant year by producing an 8.7 average (2nd best). He’s now widened his lead in this metric and should remain the active leader for the foreseeable future.

What can we learn: That Rodgers is the man? Of course, this year we got to see that first-hand. The Packers went 6-3 in Rodgers’ 9 starts and 2-4-1 without him, but remember, he threw just two passes in his Bears start, which the Packers lost. Count that as a non-Rodgers game, and Green Bay went 6-2 with him and 2-5-1 without him. From there, one might infer that he added 3.5 wins to the Packers last year, tied for the 4th most ever from a quarterback relative to his backups.

The only area where Rodgers struggles is with sacks, and it’s worth remembering that all of his other rate stats are slightly inflated because they do not include sacks in the denominator. He’s still the man, of course, but sacks, era adjustments, and the fact that he isn’t done producing top seasons is why he “only” ranked 12th and 14th on these lists.

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So far this season, one thing is obvious: the NFL scheduled Thursday night games every week for the express purpose of screwing with people who do data analysis. Even though week three has started, I’m not ready to close the door on week two, in which nearly every game was competitive into the fourth quarter. But that doesn’t mean the game script for every game was close.

Winner
 
Loser
Boxscore
PF
PA
Margin
Game Script
Green Bay PackersWashington RedskinsBoxscore38201817.9
Atlanta FalconsSt. Louis RamsBoxscore3124713.4
Oakland RaidersJacksonville JaguarsBoxscore199108.2
Seattle SeahawksSan Francisco 49ersBoxscore293267.7
New England PatriotsNew York JetsBoxscore131036.4
Denver Broncos@New York GiantsBoxscore4123185.5
Cincinnati BengalsPittsburgh SteelersBoxscore2010103.9
Miami Dolphins@Indianapolis ColtsBoxscore242043.3
San Diego Chargers@Philadelphia EaglesBoxscore333033.2
New Orleans Saints@Tampa Bay BuccaneersBoxscore161422.2
Houston TexansTennessee TitansBoxscore302461.3
Chicago BearsMinnesota VikingsBoxscore313011
Kansas City ChiefsDallas CowboysBoxscore17161-0.1
Baltimore RavensCleveland BrownsBoxscore1468-0.8
Buffalo BillsCarolina PanthersBoxscore24231-1
Arizona CardinalsDetroit LionsBoxscore25214-1.3

Steven Jackson was injured early in his revenge game against the Rams (and is expected to miss two-to-four weeks), but consider: Atlanta had 45 pass attempts against just 16 running plays in a game in which their average lead was 13.4 points. And that was with a gimpy Roddy White! Last year, I noted that the Falcons were the most pass-happy team in the NFL after adjusting for game script, and it appears that the model hasn’t changed in 2013.

There weren’t any huge comebacks this week, a byproduct of all the competitive games. The Cardinals scored nine points in the fourth quarter to beat the Lions, in a game where Detroit’s offense was shut out in the second half. Matt Stafford and company gained just 90 yards and four first downs on 24 second half plays, enabling the Cardinals to steal a win. Half of the team’s six second half drives were three and outs, one was a fumble on the second play, and the final drive was five plays and ended on downs. The only successful drive of the half was a 51-yard march that put the Lions at the Cardinals 27, but David Akers’ field goal attempt was blocked.

But while the offense had an off day, there’s a hidden factor that explains why Detroit didn’t score more than 14 offensive points (DeAndre Levy intercepted a Carson Palmer pass for 66 yard touchdown, accounting for the other seven points).
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The guy on the right was a loser until he wasn't.

The guy on the right was a loser until he wasn't.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I’m not a big fan of Matt Stafford. Last year, when most people were praising his breakout 2011 season, I questioned whether he was as good as his backers claimed. And, of course, his 2012 performance only raised more questions.

Stafford has a 17-28 career record, which in light of his recent contract extension, has caused people to criticize the Lions for giving big money to a player who is not a “winner.” There are legitimate reasons to criticize Stafford, so why would people fall back on statements like this? I’m sure Lions fans wish the team had won more games under Stafford, but that’s in the past. The real question — and the one faced by Lions management before giving him the extension — is whether his current career record has any predictive value when it comes to his future record.

Since 1960, there have been 77 quarterbacks1 who started at least 25 games in their first four seasons and then 25 more games in years five through eight. There’s some survivor bias in the sample — if you stick around for 25+ starts in years five through eight, you’re probably a pretty good quarterback — but there’s not much we can do about that. If you run a regression using winning percentage through four years as your input and winning percentage in years five through eight as your output, you get the following best-fit equation:

0.450 + 0.20 * Old Win %

The correlation coefficient is a tiny 0.04, and the p-value on the “Old Win %” variable is 0.09. Putting aside the questions of statistical significance, there is no practical effect. Stafford has a 0.377 winning percentage, which means this formula would predict him to win 52.6% of his games from 2013 to 2016. Joe Flacco won 68.75% of his games in his first four seasons; this would say he should be expected to win 58.7% of his games in years five through eight. In other words, someone with a great winning percentage should be expected to win only one more game per season than someone with a terrible winning percentage. And that’s even assuming the results are statistically significant, which many would say they are not.2
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  1. Because their first seasons as starters came after age 25, I decided to eliminate Jeff Garcia, Trent Green, Warren Moon, Kurt Warner, Ed Brown, Tony Romo, Mark Rypien, and Jim Kelly from this study. []
  2. And, of course, it doesn’t mean that that one extra win is because of the quarterback. Presumably, like in the case of Flacco, those quarterbacks who win games early are on good teams, and those teams are more likely to stay good than the bad teams. []
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Matt Stafford won the 2012 ESPY for most double chins in a leading role

Matt Stafford won the 2012 ESPY for most double chins in a leading role.

Last year’s article on the Lions was somewhat negative. Detroit went 4-12 in 2012, but the Lions are going to win more games this year. This is the type of article that Jason Lisk, Bill Barnwell, Brian Burke, or Aaron Schatz could write in their sleep. But I’m writing it while watching TV, writing a more complicated article, working out, taking out the trash, and tweeting. Let’s see Lisk do that!

The Lions went 3-9 in games decided by 8 or fewer points last year, giving them the most losses and the worst winning percentage of all teams in one-possession games. While this might imply that the Lions lack the mental fortitude to win close games, you might recall that in 2011, the Minnesota Vikings (2-9) and the Indianapolis Colts (1-7) were the worst two teams in such situations and then made the playoffs last year.

Another way to convey similar information is to look at each team’s Pythagorean record, which is calculated based on a team’s points scored and points allowed and is a better predictor of future winning percentage than past winning percentage. The table below shows each team’s number of wins, points scored and allowed, and number of Pythagorean wins for 2012, using 2.57 as my exponent(which produced the best fit for recent years). The table is sorted by the difference between actual wins and Pythagorean wins:
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Season in review: AFC and NFC North

On Monday, I examined the seasons of the teams in the AFC and NFC East. Today I will do the same for the AFC and NFC North, starting in the AFC.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pre-season Projection: 10 wins
Maximum wins: 11 wins (after weeks 2, 5, and 9)
Minimum wins: 8 (after week 16)
Week 1 comment: Sunday Night was one of the best games I’ve seen from Ben Roethlisberger. An elite team that will be favored to win most weeks, although questions remain about the offensive line, the running backs, and the age of the defense.

Pittsburgh started off 6-3 and looked like a contender, but tanked in the second half of the season once Roethlisberger went down. Even when Roethlisberger returned, the offense never quite looked right. Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, and Rashard Mendenhall were unexciting plodders, which is an improvement over the 25 carries that went to Baron Batch. No Steeler finished the season with more than two rushing touchdowns. In the passing game, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown both failed to match last year’s lofty numbers. The potential was there, but the results were not in Pittsburgh in 2012.

On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh’s defense performed well by conventional measures — through week 16 (which is when they were knocked out of the playoff race), they ranked 1st in yards allowed and first downs allowed, and ranked 2nd in net yards per attempt allowed, rushing yards and rushing yards per carry allowed. But the defense wasn’t really up to Steelers standards — through week 16, they ranked 10th in points allowed and, more damningly, had forced more turnovers than just three teams. Pittsburgh allowed 5 4th quarter game-winning drives, which ultimately cost them the playoffs.

Baltimore Ravens

Pre-season Projection: 10 wins
Maximum wins: 11 wins (first after week 3, last after week 13)
Minimum wins: 9 wins (after week 15)
Week 1 comment: Great performance on Monday Night, but I have to imagine missing Terrell Suggs is going to hurt this team. He’s too good to simply expect business as usual in Baltimore, and their schedule (AFC West, NFC East, Houston, New England outside the division) is riddled with traps.

The schedule was riddled with traps, but the Ravens rode some late-game success and excellent special teams to a 9-2 record. At that point, I wrote: I still don’t believe in this team, because they aren’t going to have amazing special teams or amazing 4th and 29 conversions every week.

Joe Flacco had a solid but not great year, while Ray Rice continued to prove effective when given the carries. The big issue for Baltimore was defensively. Through 16 weeks, the Ravens ranked 20th in yards allowed, 18th in NY/A, and 24th in first downs allowed. While the Ravens won the North, 8 games out of Terrell Suggs, 6 games of Ray Lewis, and 6 games of Lardarius Webb simply wasn’t enough to give them the defense Ravens fans were used to seeing.
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NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 13

This week at the New York Times, I blush when discussing Andrew Luck, praise the great Calvin Johnson as he tries to surpass Jerry Rice (but with a caveat), and take a look at some other random stats (including some absurd numbers from Adrian Peterson). Trivia: Brandon Marshall has gained over 1,000 yards on both the Bears and Broncos in seasons in which Jay Cutler was his primary quarterback both seasons. Can you name the only two other wide receivers to gain 1,000 yards with multiple teams but the same passer?

It’s not supposed to be this easy.

Sure, Steve Young and Aaron Rodgers followed Joe Montana and Brett Favre and excelled, but the fact that those examples are so memorable shows that they are the exception to the rule.

You’re not supposed to be able to replace a Hall of Fame quarterback with another star. In Indianapolis, the Colts got a taste of what life is often like for a team in the first year after a franchise quarterback’s exit: Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins earned every bit of their combined 2-14 record in 2011. But after the Colts bottomed out, Indianapolis’s fortunes changed dramatically. With the first pick in the 2012 draft, the team selected Stanford’s Andrew Luck, and the Colts appear set to be an annual contender for the next decade. Again.

Luck ranks fourth in passing yards this season, and he has shouldered the load for a Colts team that is below average in rushing, stopping the run and stopping the pass. Luck ranks “only” 19th in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt and 14th in Net Yards per Attempt, unimpressive numbers only outside of the context of a rookie quarterback playing for what was the worst team in the N.F.L. a year ago. Luck passes the eye test and at least one advanced metric (before last night’s game, Luck ranked 6th in ESPN’s Total QBR), but part of what’s impressive about him is that even when he isn’t playing well, he remains capable of carrying his team to victory. Luck struggled for much of the game against Detroit on Sunday but still managed to pull out a most improbable victory.

In the first 56 minutes of the game, Luck was 17 for 39 for 279 yards with three interceptions. His team trailed the Lions, 33-21, with under three minutes remaining. At that point, Advanced NFL Stats calculated Indianapolis’s odds of winning at 2 percent.

But Luck led them on two scoring drives, and the Colts became just the seventh team to win a game despite trailing by 12 or more points with so little time remaining since 2000. Two of the other instances involved Peyton Manning with the Colts. In 2003, Manning led the Colts on a marvelous comeback against the Buccaneers on “Monday Night Football.” Six years later, Indianapolis trailed New England, 34-21, with 2:30 remaining. A Colts touchdown was followed by three Patriots plays that gained 8 yards, setting up Bill Belichick’s infamous 4th-and-2 decision.

It will be a long time before Luck could be considered anywhere near Manning’s class in terms of body of work, but his performance against the Lions is now alongside many of Manning’s memories in the annals of great Colts moments. Luck’s game-winning touchdown to Donnie Avery was just the 13th game-winning touchdown pass in the final seconds of a game since 2000.

Statistically, Andrew Luck may not be having the best year, but he has played an enormous part in the Colts’ magical run. At 8-4, the Colts are almost certainly going to make the playoffs; if they do, they will join the 2008 Miami Dolphins and 1982 Patriots on the list of N.F.L. teams to make the playoffs a year after going 2-14 or worse.

Luck will also set a couple of rookie records. With the game-winning drive he led against the Lions, he tied Ben Roethlisberger and Vince Young for the most fourth-quarter game-winning drives (five) by a rookie quarterback. By defeating Detroit and earning his eighth win, he broke a tie with Sam Bradford and now has the most wins among rookie quarterbacks selected first over all since 1950. Luck’s next victory will give him nine wins this season, tying him with Chris Chandler for the franchise record for wins by a rookie quarterback.

Calvin Johnson and the Lions’ Passing Game

Calvin Johnson led the league with 1,681 receiving yards last season and was named a first-team All-Pro by The Associated Press for the first time in his career. His encore performance may be even better.

He has gained a mind-boggling 1,428 receiving yards this season, joining Elroy Hirsch (1,495 yards in 1951) on the short list of N.F.L. players to top the 1,400-yard mark in a team’s first 12 games (in the A.F.L., Charley Hennigan and Lance Alworth each reached that mark once as well).

You can read the full post (and the answer to the trivia question) here.

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Profiling Pat Studstill

Lions wide receiver present.

On Sunday, Calvin Johnson became just the second player in NFL history to gain at least 125 receiving yards in five consecutive games. He’s also the second Lion to hit those marks.

As you’ve probably figured it out by the title, the only player with 125+ receiving yards in five straight games prior to Johnson was Patrick Lewis Studstill Jr., who had an 11-year career with the Lions, Rams, and Patriots. Studstill was a first-team All-Pro wide receiver in 1966, when he led the NFL in receiving yards. Beginning in week 5 of that season, Studstill topped 115 receiving yards in six straight weeks. Those were six highest single-game yardage totals of his career.

Studstill was a receiver and punter at the University of Houston in the late ’50s, but his senior season was a disaster. Head coach Hal Lahar was your typical coach of the era when it came to rules, and Studstill violated a major one — by getting married. Lahar benched Studstill for his entire senior year, and as a result, Studstill went undrafted. One of the Cougars assistant coaches, Red Conkright, was a former NFL player who would later become the last head coach of the Oakland Raiders before Al Davis. Conkright vouched for Studstill, who received a tryout in Detroit. Because of his versatility and speed, he was able to make the Lions roster in 1961.

Studstill didn’t see the field much during his rookie season, but did manage a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown against the Bears. An injury to Terry Barr in 1962 opened the door for Studstill to begin making a contribution on offense. In the last 9 games of the season, Sutdstill caught 31 passes for 446 yards, second on the team in both categories to Pro Bowler Gail Cogdill.
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The Tennessee-Detroit game was an instant classic today, with one of the wildest fourth quarters anyone will ever see. The 46 points scored were the second most in NFL history, trailing another recent game involving the Lions.

The scoring was crazy. Tommie Campbell had a 65-yard punt return at the end of the first quarter; a few minutes later, Jared Cook caught a 61-yard touchdown, and both were more incredible than I’m describing. But that was about it until the 4th quarter, save a one-yard Mikel Leshoure touchdown. Then, in the 4th, Nate Burleson (3 yards), Darius Reynaud (105), Nate Washington (71), Alterraun Verner (72), Calvin Johnson (3) and Titus Young (46) scored touchdowns, the last coming on a Hail Mary.

All told, there were 9 touchdowns scored in the game, and those touchdowns covered a total of 427 yards. The Titans became the first team in NFL history to score five touchdowns of 60 or more yards. But that 427-yard mark? That just sneaks into the top 10 all-time for yards on touchdowns in a game (click on any of the boxscores below to take you to that game):

That top game was one of the most memorable games of the ’60s and remains the game with the most points ever scored in an NFL game.

Of course, a lot of the craziness was coming from Tennessee, which managed to gain 374 yards on their touchdowns. That’s good enough for 2nd place — in the Redskins-Giants game, Washington’s touchdowns covered 403 yards. Here’s a list of the single teams to cover at least 300 yards on their touchdowns in a game:

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The San Francisco 49ers were the breakout team of the 2011 season, going from 6-10 in 2010 to 13-3 last year. The Cincinnati Bengals were the surprise team of the AFC, jumping from four to nine wins and earning a playoff berth. The Houston Texans, Detroit Lions, and Denver Broncos all made the playoffs after notching four more wins in 2011 than they had in 2010. But could you have known after just one week that those teams were on track for such breakout seasons? Let’s review.

San Francisco 49ers 33, Seattle 17

The 49ers were Super Bowl contenders as long as Ginn was returning punts.

This was an odd game, and Jason McIntyre explains why:

San Francisco had just 12 first downs and 209 yards … but still beat the Seahawks by 16 points. The real reason the 49ers won was because Ted Ginn ran a punt and kickoff back for touchdowns in a span of 59 seconds. But offensively, Frank Gore averaged 2.7 ypc and Alex Smith threw for just 124 yards. San Francisco had the ball for 31 minutes and mustered only 12 first downs. As bad as the 49ers looked offensively, the defense did sack T-Jack five times and generate three turnovers. But if the 49ers couldn’t move the ball against a mediocre Seahawks defense … what will they be able to do against the Cowboys, which annihilated the Jets’ offensive line Sunday night? The 49ers have opened as 3-point dogs against Dallas next weekend … I humbly suggest loading up on Romo in that one. No word if San Fran will be without Michael Crabtree.

The 49ers offense wasn’t impressive, but San Francisco’s defense and special teams were dominant. That formula proved to work all season, although few expected it to work against teams better than Seattle. At the time Seattle was considered one of the worst teams in the league (they were a 14-point underdog in Pittsburgh the following week), which made the victory look even less impressive. After week one, Jason Lisk unveiled his Week 1 Power rankings, placing NFL teams into seven tiers. The 49ers were placed in Tier 6 with the comment “When you need two returns by Ted Ginn to put away the Seahawks, you are not good.” ESPN’s power rankings placed San Francisco at #22.

Cincinnati 27, Cleveland 17
This was an ugly game that caught almost nobody’s attention. The big stories of the game were the officiating and the performance of Bruce Gradkowski, who came and led Cincinnati to a win after Andy Dalton was injured. Many in Cleveland blamed the referees, as the Browns were flagged for 11 penalties, compared to just three for Cincinnati. And on the game’s pivotal play — a 41-yard touchdown to A.J. Green — the Browns were still in their defensive huddle at the start of the play, and later argued that the quick snap wasn’t a legal play. The Bengals defense was excellent, shutting down Peyton Hillis and Colt McCoy, but many thought that was simply a product of the schedule. Suffice it to say, no one was boarding the Bengals’ bandwagon after week one. Lisk placed Cincinnati in Tier 5: “Still not sold here, especially if Bruce Gradkowski is QB. Haden shut down Green until the play where he was uncovered at the snap, and Benson’s numbers boosted by a late TD run.” ESPN ranked the Bengals 30th… and the Browns 32nd. The Bengals would lose in Denver and in San Francisco the next two weeks, dropping to 1-2.
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